Fairy Tales in Vintage French Postcards

Vintage French postcards are all over Etsy and Pinterest.  Some are portraits of pretty young ladies.  Many others advertise tourist destinations or famous French aperitifs.  Sets that illustrate fairy tales seem to be more unusual and Cotsen is fortunate to have some examples from the so-called Golden Age of Postcards between 1890 and 1915.One of the most sumptuous sets in the collection (Cotsen 60506) retells Perrault’s fairy tale of  “Sleeping Beauty” (“La Belle au Bois Dormant”) in six scenes.  They may look like postcards, with unsigned color illustrations centered on borders of attractively torn paper set on a gold background, but they were not designed to be sent through the mail. Flip any of the cards over and the back is a beautifully composed advertisement dated 1900 promoting Aristide and Marguerite Boucicault’s Le Bon Marché, the first department store in France, as one of the foremost attractions in Paris..“Little Thumb” (“Le Petit Poucet”), also from Perrault’s Histoires du tems passé is illustrated in 10 scenes reproduced from half-tone photographs of carefully posed models (Cotsen 60505).  The color was added by hand or with stencils. The man playing the ogre mugs at the camera while wielding a huge knife and grabbing one of the hero’s little brothers by a foot. Never mind if the thief Petit Poucet swimming in the ogre’s seven-league boots looks as he won’t be able to run like the wind to rescue his siblings. B. Chenas sent a one-line message on each card sometime in 1908 to Mlle Gabrielle Perez, a guest at the Patte d’oie (“The Foot of the Goose”)  in Herblay, Seine-et-Oise, a northwestern suburb of Paris about twelve miles from city center.The postcard collection has three versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” (“Le Petit Chaperon Rouge”).  The set with sepia photographic illustrations is signed in the lower right hand corner “J.K” and numbered in the lower left-hand corner “660” (presumably the publisher’s number for a title within a series).  Cotsen 60503 consists of five scenes featuring an adorable little girl with bobbed hair wearing a print apron over a ruffled skirt and sabots. The skeletal wolf standing next to her in the second card looks as fake as the wolf’s head in grandmother’s mob cap in the fifth one.  Everything after that may be missing.  There’s no publisher or address lines on the back, so perhaps these charming cards were made for another purpose.The second “Red Riding Hood” (Cotsen 60502) in twelve acts is based on “The Big Bad Wolf,” the 1934 sequel to the wildly successful 1933 Disney Silly Symphony “The Three Pigs.”  The story is a mash-up of Perrault and the English folktale.  The piggies dance with Red down a path through the woods until they are ambushed by the wolf in an outrageous fairy costume.  The girl doesn’t lose her nerve and runs away, while the cowardly pigs shiver on the ground.  They do pull themselves together fast enough to get to the grandmother’s cottage in time to save their friend from the vile hairy beast.“Le Chaperon Rose” is a slightly saucy version of the fairy tale in five beautifully produced hand-colored photographs acted out for the camera by two exquisitely turned out children around eleven or twelve (Cotsen 60501).  The wolf, played by a boy in a short suit accessorized with a cane, watch, and bowler hat, greets Chaperon Rose, dainty in a pink gown bedizened with tucks and ruffles.  She presents him with a rose from her basket and pins it to his lapel, a gesture which obviously pleases him.  She invites him to kiss her on the check, accepting his token of esteem with a coy, knowing look.  “N. Guillot” sent sweet kisses to Mlle. Yvonne Guillot in Lille—perhaps a father travelling on business or a grandparent staying in touch between visits in 1907.

Do It Yourself Costumes Made with Dennison Tissue Paper

The young lady wearing the stunning paper headdress above might be surprised to learn that elaborate costumes made out of tissue or crepe paper are not a new phenomenon. The dress to the right, from the collection of the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, is a relic from the 1930s, when the trend was well established.  In fact its popularity increased during the Depression when people had less disposable income.

Around 1892, Dennison Manufacturing, a Massachusetts firm specializing in paper products, began importing crepe tissue paper in a delicious array of colors from England. By 1914 Dennison had established an art department to exploit the products’ uses, launching a stream of  well-illustrated ten cent pamphlets full of detailed instructions for making artificial flowers, home décor like lamp shades, holiday decorations, and fancy costumes for various occasions.  The machine-crinkled paper was surprisingly strong, easy to work with, and much more affordable than woven fabrics, making it possible to create a rather showy ensemble for pennies.  References to tissue paper party dresses begin cropping up in fiction as early as 1900, one example appearing in The Little Colonel’s House Party by the once popular author Annie Fellows Johnson.

In Dennison’s first pamphlet, Tissue Paper Entertainments, which introduced novelty crepe tissue paper to the American public in 1892, the manufacturer claimed that it was a godsend to any organization trying to mount children’s programs with very limited resources. Dennison did more than serve as the source of raw materials, it acted more like an impresario, dramaturg, and a coach. The preface assured adults that they could succeed in producing pageants if they kept the following tips in mind at all times:

  1. Opportunity for many to take part.
  2. No long speeches.
  3. No special talent required to fill the part, such as dramatic power, a powerful voice, etc.
  4. Such alternation of recitation and singing as may secure a pleasing variety.

The buyer could be confident that the product had tested: the pupils of a poor Mission Sunday School had been invited to make the costumes especially designed for the scripts contained in Dennison’s Tissue Paper Entertainments: two for girls, two for boys. The author(s) were not credited anywhere in the publication. Dennison thoughtfully estimated the size of the cast, recommended the best colors for performance in natural and artificial light, and total cost of the paper.  The locations of Dennison’s metropolitan retail outlets below, for convenience in ordering.  A section on gestures and a blocking for the concert recitation was offered to bolster the confidence of inexperienced directors…War and Peace (no connection to Tolstoy’s novel) for 48 boys divided into 8 groups of 6 was surprisingly easy to costume.  The short boys were to be cast as the minor nations in the group comprised of France, Austria, Germany, Italy, England, Russia, and the United States. “Some attention should be paid to complexion,” instructions ran, “the swarthiest for Italy, the fairest for Russia.”  Different options were given for making the military uniforms.  A scarf of cut paper could be draped over the shoulder, paper basted onto a garment, or a uniform entirely of paper lined with cheesecloth.  Stripes down the side of the trousers, epaulets, chevrons, and stripes on the sleeves could all be made with bright yellow paper.  Appropriate flags could be made of tissue paper copying the designs in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.  The production ended with the entire cast singing for the advent of world peace.

Dennison outdid itself with three-act The Story of Joseph.   All ten brothers of Joseph had lines to learn, but Reuben, Jacob, Judah and Joseph were given multiple speeches.  Joseph brought down the curtain with a solo. His coat of many colors could easily be fashioned from 6 different colors, so he would stand out from his older brothers in drab, dark robes.  Joseph was also the only character with a costume change–purple for his royal robes and a suitable headdress modeled on something in an illustrated Bible.  Scenery was required for acts 2 and 3: an “oriental” tent and a state apartment, both of which could be furnished with crinkled paper hangings and coverings for the throne.

How successful was this venture?  Until someone makes it their business to find out, we have to assume it never generated the revenue as the market for Halloween, which Dennison masterfully saturated.